The high price of political incompetence

/ 04:01 PM October 22, 2017

Victory has been declared and troops are about to be pulled out of Marawi City but by no means can the Philippine battle against Islamic terrorists be considered over.

President Rodrigo Duterte may have declared victory against the Maute, the pro-Islamic State rebels, but past experience is a reminder how hollow such claims can be. Remember American President George W. Bush’s declaration of victory after the US-led international forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime?


Marawi won’t be truly liberated until the 200,000-plus residents can return safely to their homes and continue with their lives. Like Bush, Duterte may have won a battle. But he is not fighting a conventional war. He is fighting a powerful narrative trotted out by non-state actors who have embraced an extremely wicked fantasy of a utopian society.

What’s scary is that they are willing to put their lives on the line for an idea that exists only in their mind. Ignoring them can be costly. In the case of Marawi, it was not intelligence failure. It was Manila’s failure to act on the intelligence that they had been receiving. Was it lack of political will or just downright incompetence of the policymakers in Manila?


IS-inspired groups remain strong as ever in Southeast Asia and the fact that many of their comrades are being driving out of the Middle East means that the fighters who originated from this region will be coming home.

Southern Philippines, or Mindanao, is one of the few pockets where these IS fighters can return and continue to take up arms against the respective state.Some security analysts believe that Thailand’s Muslim-majority South may be “lawless” enough to accommodate the returning IS fighters. But the conflict in the Pattani region is an ethno-nationalist one where Malay separatists are bent on separating their homeland from the Thai state.

Radical groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as well as al-Qaeda member, Hambali, have tried to exploit the insurgency in Thailand’s far South. But they all left the region empty-handed.Much as the Thai state hates to admit it, Patani Malay separatists – unlike the IS-inspired groups – practised a high degree of restraint. They kept the violence confined to the Malay-speaking South and only exported it to Buddhist-majority areas as a retaliation against the Thai state’s perceived violation of ground rules such as torture, abusive acts against innocent civilians or extra-judicial killings of religious and community leaders in the region.

IS-inspired groups in the Philippines, on the other hand, may be looking to take their campaign of violence to major cities around the Philippines. That’s what terrorist groups do; they terrorise the people and the state apparatus.While the political context of ethno-nationalist groups like the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the IS-inspired outfit like the Maute are worlds apart, policymakers in Bangkok and Manila do not seem to understand how deep the indoctrination is for these non-state actors.

In Thailand’s case, policymakers never take the time to understand the Malay narrative, how long it was going on and why it turned to violence more than 50 years after the region came under Bangkok’s direct rule, and not at the time when the border was drawn with the British.Our policymakers lacked the sophistication to understand complex issues that come with nation-building. It was easier to dismiss the separatists as a bunch of drug-crazed youth who had embraced a flawed interpretation of Islam.

But after 13 years of violence and nearly 7,000 deaths, Bangkok needs to think outside the box.Manila has been negotiating with groups like MILF and the New People’s Army, a left-leaning outfit. In this respect, there is a lot Bangkok can learn from their counterparts, especially how to properly run a peace process and negotiation.So far, Thailand has not encountered IS-inspired groups like Maute in the country. But it doesn’t mean that they are not here already.

Remember how Thaksin Shinawatra used to claim that there were no JI cells in Thailand? But it was later learned that one of the top JI leaders like Hambali was arrested in Thailand and his other lieutenants had taken refuge in the country. Like it or not, Thailand is not out of the loop. Terrorism knows no border.


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TAGS: Asia, opinion, Philippines, politics, terrorism, Thailand
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